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Direct Traffic

One of the metrics that you should watch for with analytics tools like Google Analytics is direct traffic, which is essentially traffic that is not the result of a referral. 

What is direct traffic?

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How did you discover your favorite website? There are different ways, but all of them can be classified to either being referred through a link on the Internet (whether through a search engine, an email, or a social media post, for example) or not. Traffic that was not referred through a link on the Internet, by definition, is classified as direct traffic.

Analytics tools analyze the individual URLs that bring traffic to a website. These URLs contain tracking information about the source. If the URLs do not contain tracking information or are improperly tagged, then analytics tools will count the site visit as direct traffic by default. 

Where does direct traffic come from?

Analytics tools such as Google Analytics often lump together all traffic with no identifiable source as direct traffic. This is because analytics tools can track the source of the traffic if it is from a link in another website. If the traffic does not come from a link posted on the Internet, then analytics tools are unable to identify its origin. 

However, this does not mean that we cannot identify the source of direct traffic. When traffic comes from one of the following sources, analytics tools will mark it as direct traffic: 

  • Internal employees - this happens when the IPs they use are not filtered from web analytics.
  • Customers - web analytics can incorrectly track customers who directly go to the customer portal of your website.
  • Manual site entry - from directly typing your URL into their browsers or via a bookmark. This is sometimes called real direct traffic.
  • Emails - particular email clients do not pass on tracking information and thus are not tracked by the analytics tools.
  • Mobile traffic - mobile traffic is not always properly tracked by analytics tools and can be lumped in with direct traffic.
  • Clicks from mobile apps or desktop software - they mostly do not pass along tracking information to the analytics tools.
  • Secure (https) to non-secure (http) protocol - any traffic going from a secure site to a non-secure site will not share referral information with analytics tools.
  • Dark social - referrals via social media that are not tracked correctly and are thus recorded as direct traffic.

Why should you measure direct traffic?

There are two reasons why you should measure direct traffic.

Indicator of popularity of your website

Direct traffic is one of the indicators of the popularity of your website. How?

  • It shows the degree of popularity of your site among the users. Besides manual site entry to the search bar of their browsers, direct traffic also comes from referrals that do not contain tracking information.
  • Sites with higher direct traffic will be pushed up Google’s rankings, enhancing the organic traffic (traffic with tracked referrals).

As you can conclude from the list of sources of direct traffic, not all direct traffic is real direct traffic; a significant portion of it is due to issues in tracking and passing the tracking information to the analytics tools. Nonetheless, for increases in other sources of traffic, there are bound to be traffic that would be lumped into direct traffic.

Serves as a check on the viability of URLs distributed in various websites and social media networks

Analytics tools allow you to view even hourly changes in the inbound traffic. Thus, one can observe changes in the sources of inbound traffic. Over time, links can actually get broken such that the user reaches your website but the tracking information is missing. Analytics tools, by default, will tag them as direct traffic.

When links break like this, they will appear as drops in a certain source of inbound traffic while having an equivalent increase in direct traffic. An investigation into which sources saw a decrease in inbound traffic will reveal which URLs have broken over time.

How can you improve direct traffic?

Unlike other metrics, improving direct traffic means being able to properly classify what is falsely tagged as direct traffic to their actual sources. This will result in direct traffic decreasing over time as you implement some changes to make traffic sources more transparent. This will improve your subsequent analysis of inbound traffic. 

Here are some of the tips in improving your direct traffic.

Use Google’s Campaign Builder Tool

The important tracking information can be found appended at the end of the URL. This is the reason why URLs from ads, social media posts, and search results are longer than the actual URL of the website. 

To make it easier to create a URL for a specific campaign, Google Analytics offers a free URL builder tool that you can use. 

Google Analytics Campaign URL Builder.

This tool is especially useful if you are using Google Analytics as your analytics tool. Check it out here: Campaign URL Builder

Upgrade your website to https protocol

When traffic is referred from an “https” website to an “http” website, the tracking information is removed by the “https” website in advance for security. Thus, upgrading your website to “https” protocol will allow you to capture the tracking information that is used by analytics tools to classify the source of the traffic.

To upgrade to “https” protocol, you need to secure an SSL certificate. This is best handled by the webmaster of your websites.

Filter out internal traffic

Your employees need to access your websites several times a day, whether you are selling products on your website or are hosting an online service that needs to be managed 24/7. This can easily increase the recorded direct traffic by the analytics tools you use. The solution is simple: filter out the internal traffic by listing their IP addresses. As the computer units used by your employees have their own IP addresses, simply listing them to be filtered out will reduce the listed direct traffic, ensuring that all the remaining directed traffic is from potential customers.

Divide internal traffic into mobile and desktop traffic

Even if the tracking information is lacking in direct traffic, it is still possible to identify whether the device used is a desktop unit or a mobile unit. This will not immediately reduce traffic incorrectly classified as indirect traffic, but will help in the subsequent analysis of sources of direct traffic. For example, more and more desktop users nowadays use ad blockers in their browsers. Ad blockers strip away tracking information that can be used by our analytics tools. This can reflect in the direct traffic data you are collecting. 


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